The parallels are striking: A government collapses in a divided country, militant jihadist groups quickly fill the vacuum, and a humanitarian disaster breaks out, threatening to breed chaos throughout the region. These factors have long been associated with Somalia, the world’s most enduring failed state. But for months now they have begun to describe Mali, located across the continent to the west, which is now poised to assume Somalia’s unenviable status as Africa’s most troubled nation. And just as Somalia’s instability ripped through the Horn of Africa, so too could the chaos in Mali mean trouble for the larger Sahel region in West Africa.
Things first started to go south in March, when soldiers staged a coup in Bamako, overthrowing President Amadou Toumani Toure only weeks before a new president was to be selected. Quickly thereafter, Tuareg rebels, who have had grievances with the Malian government since the early 1960s, aligned with jihadist forces, defeated the national army, captured the key cities of Timbuktu, Kidal, and Gao and declared the northern part of the country the breakaway nation of Azawad.